Dolph Lundgren Brings Comics' Most Popular Hero to the Screen
He may not be faster than a speeding bullet, or able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, but Dolph Lundgren's martial arts training made him the perfect choice for New World's most ambitious release to date.
Inside Karate, August 1989, Volume 10 No. 8
Believe it or not, Dolph Lundgren has been bullied. At the age of 15, he was self-described as "one of the weaklings people kick sand at on the beach." After being kicked around once too often, he took up karate. Five years later, at six-foot-six, 200 pounds, he received his second-degree black belt and became captain of the Swedish full-contact karate team. He went on to win the European full-contact karate championships in 1980 and 1981, as well as the heavyweight division title in Australia in 1982.
Dolph exploded on the scene as the evil Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Although he had admittedly few lines in the film, his physique and presence earned him an instant following. He was viewed as a natural for the popular cartoon character of He-Man in Cannon Films' live-action version of Masters of the Universe. His career continues to burgeon with the Rambo-like Red Scorpion.
Lundgren, a practitioner of the kyokushin style, developed by the great Mas Oyama, which incorporates elements of shotokan, goju-ryu and muay Thai, credits the martial arts with giving him the discipline to concentrate and focus his energy intensely on a particular time and place. This background made him a natural for the action/adventure film The Punisher, in which he brings Marvel Comics' most popular hero to life.
Not Just Another Rambo Clone
"Although The Punisher is a comic book hero, he is also flesh and blood. He doesn't leap out of a phone booth transformed into something superhuman." The speaker is Robert Kamen, creator of the Karate Kid series, who co-wrote and produced the The Punisher.
The lead character, Frank Castle, nicknamed "The Punisher", is an ordinary man whose family is killed by the mob. He undertakes a one-man war of vengeance, and adopts an arsenal of both traditional and highly sophisticated martial weapons, as well as extensive empty-hand skills. Ultimately, the Japanese Yakuza enter the fray, calling for a tremendous amount of personal combat.
Kamen was determined to have authentic looking fight scenes. A black belt himself, Kamen was so impressed with Lundgren's kyokushin style, he determined to make it the foundation of the film.
"Surprisingly," comments Kamen, "it was Dolph's sheer physicality that appealed to me - the way he looked as Drago in Rocky IV. When we approached him for the title role, I had no idea he was a black belt."
Things get Intense
Dolph plunged into the role heart and soul. His Swedish blond crop of hair dyed brown, he is the living image of the comic book character. He spent several hours a day brushing up his karate training and weapons expertise.
"We also tried a reverse approach," according to Kamen. "There's an old problem in film. Martial artists don't make good stuntmen, and stuntmen don't know much about martial arts. Normally, producers train stuntmen to handle fight scenes. To make our scenes look more authentic, we trained fighters to handle stunts."
It turned out to be an enormously tall order, but Kamen's determination saw him through. In multi-cultural Australia, he came up with more than 50 people to handle the action of the film, ranging from a 65-year-old stuntman to an 18-year-old schoolgirl karate champion. However, to be totally authentic, it was necessary to go to Japan to cast two pivotal roles - those of the Yakuza chief's bodyguards.
Ultimately, they located two young men with no acting backgrounds whatsover. Enormous by Japanese standards, Hirofumi Kanayama and Kenji Yamaki proved to be adaptable as well as highly adept martial artists, and brought an unprecedented authenticity to the fight scenes.
An Old Love
For Dolph Lundgren, the training rekindled an old love. "I had to train so intensively for the role," he relates, "that it really hit home - what an important influence karate had been on my life.
"It helped shape me as an adult, gave me mental and physical strength, and a high level of self-discipline.
"I'm now down to the weight I fought at in the European championships - 30 pounds lighter than I was when I played Drago. It feels great."
What's next for Dolph Lundgren? As soon as time permits, he plans to add a third dan to his black belt!